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Building where jazz greats played faces demolition

Thursday, March 6, 2014 | 4:02 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — A three-story building in midtown St. Louis where jazz greats such as Count Basie, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington once played is facing demolition after being declared a public safety hazard.

In the 1930s, jazz stars were drawn to the Castle Ballroom, considered one of St. Louis' last remaining buildings with historic connections to the city's black community, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Severe weather last year caused one of the walls to collapse at the vacant building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Some of the building owners in the last decade have been top city and area leaders. In 2004, SAG Properties, a business group that includes Ron Smith — who was Mayor Francis Slay's operations director from 2005 to 2010 — bought the building from a business entity controlled by then-Alderman Lewis Reed and former U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan.

No substantial improvements were made to the building in the last decade.

"Here you have leaders who are very pro-preservation," said Michael Allen, an architectural historian who heads the Preservation Research Office. "I find it strange that none of them could put a new roof on the building. Talk about preservation — it starts there."

The city said the severe weather last November and April heavily damaged the wall and roof, making demolition necessary.

Smith, who retired as Slay's operations director in 2010 and is a one-third owner of SAG, said the company kept the building "safe and secure" but that he didn't take an active role in the building's maintenance and operation.

"Some of the larger issues that had to be addressed had to be put on hold for financial reasons," Smith said.

SAG is working with its insurance company to pay for the demolition, which could begin within days.

The Castle Ballroom was built in 1908 and was originally a major venue for ballroom and social dance instruction. By the 1930s, it became a showcase for jazz bands and dance orchestras. By 1950, a city entertainment tax took its toll on many St. Louis clubs, and the Castle Ballroom was forced to close, according to an application to give the building historic status. The building was later occupied by the St. Louis Silent Club, an organization for the deaf, and was used as a tennis court before becoming vacant.


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